- As I began writing this on Halloween towards the end of what has been a gruesome midterm election season, I realized that October had nothin’ on September in regards to its ghastliness. The families of Tyler Clementi, Asher Brown, Billy Lucas, Raymond Chase, Seth Walsh, and too many others unfortunately witnessed the harsh effects of such ghastly intolerance up close. ”When I was in college, I had a friend who was a dancer,” says Iana Equality Di Bona of the group Queer SOS. “He wanted to bring his boyfriend home and couldn’t because both of his parents were bigots, and didn’t accept him for who he was.” She admits being affected by her friend’s plight. “I didn’t understand how a parent could disown their child.”
Iana and other members of Queer SOS also can’t understand how politicians can idly stand by and do nothing but give lip service to a few high-profile issues such as Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and Gay Marriage without addressing another fundamental issue: Civil Rights.
Which is why for the past thirty-six days they have been holding a round-the-clock vigil across the street from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s office in Midtown Manhattan demanding that she file the American Equality Bill, which would allow the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity into the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The obvious question some may have is why Gillibrand and not Sen. Schumer, who has been in Washington for far longer and has more clout? ”She’s the appropriate person to ask, and she’s our ally,” says Di Bona referencing Gillibrand’s support for ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Iana is yet to meet Sen. Gillibrand in person, however, “…Several vigilers spoke to her last Saturday in Brooklyn, and asked about her position on the American Equality Bill. Her response was that she’s working on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and ENDA, and has an election to win. That was her response.”
“We have spoken to her state director, her pr person, her staff, they see us every day. We go to her office to say ‘Hello, we’re out there’. But yeah, she knows. We have people calling, emailing, my father has called, my mother has called, friends have called and emailed.”
” [Gillibrand] says it’s easier to fight in pieces for things, which I think is unacceptable. Partial equality is not equality. We want federal equality. I don’t want to wait a single moment longer.”
“We will not disappear,” is a phrase that was uttered by Iana not only during our interview, but also when she, along with other activists including DADT activist and ex-serviceman Dan Choi were chained to a fence at the White House. “Anyone that thinks they’re in power needs to know that. I’m not going to disappear.”
By the time you read this come November 2nd, Queer SOS will have evolved into Civil Rights Fast and will be, you guessed it, fasting round the clock until their goal is reached. “We are escalating into a fast because our senator has yet to file our civil rights bill. We hope she will now listen to us and file that bill. That our community, LGBT, straight, everyone alike will rally behind this sacrifice.”
In an era where activism has gone online and made huge strides through websites such as MoveOn.org, and through social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, it seems rare these days to see actions that are steeped in the roots of past activists like MLK, Chavez, and Milk in 2010.
“Those tools, Facebook, Twitter, E-mailing, those are the means to cultivate each other into one space and then go do-that ‘s the point of it-to bring people together.” She quotes her fellow vigiler Alan Bounville’s call to “Get off the computer. Get on the street. The real church is on the street, not on the computer. [After watching footage of the Homophobia Kills Die-In] I said to myself, ‘this is church’ “.
“It’s really about agitating our politicians, our people, in any which way. Any response is a good response,” Iana says. This is about them, where they feel they are right now in their lives, what dreams they have for themselves, how far they’re willing to go. I know how far I’m willing to go.”
Iana has been involved in activism since her college days at CUNY-Hunter College, and after receiving her Masters in Urban Affairs continued to work with various social justice groups. Queer SOS was developed by Iana, Todd Fernandez, one of the authors of the AEB, and Alan Bounville. The idea for the vigil came about over the summer. “Alan and I were on the road, doing civil disobedience training from the Midwest to the West Coast…in the midst of it, Todd brought this idea to us, and we started off on the 27th [of September].”
Iana’s advice for young activists looking to fight for what they believe in is to “Follow your instincts, do what feels right. Keep yourself open to those who are available and those who want to be educated.”
Queer SOS/Civil Rights Fast’s time on 26th street has been full of moments with those who wish to learn more about civil rights, or simply support their cause. “I’ve always known for a very long time, that people are good. There’s a very small percentage of what you call bad people. People are generally very good to each other. People let us use their facilities. They bring us coffee, food, when I woke up, there was money by my head. We wake up with shoes on our feet. People come up to us with hot chocolate.”
There have, however, been some rocky moments, such as receiving a disorderly conduct summons. “We’re not being disorderly, our senator is.”
Overall, the experience has been enlightening for Iana. “This neighborhood is amazing. I’m gonna feel like I’m missing a part of me when I leave. Thirty-five days, over a month out here. They’re all so supportive. When we got the summons, the doormen came to us and made sure we were okay. “
When a man who initially thought Iana was homeless learned the real reason why she was out on the street, his offer of money turned into an offer for a Bible. Iana’s response? “The moment you looked at me, when you were moved to put your hand in your pocket and help me, I want you to go with that feeling, because that is humanity in action. We got to keep going that way, and then we can get things done.”
(Photos and video used with permission from http://www.civilrightsfast.com)